Capital Gazette Newspaper Faces Buyouts and Downsizing : Embedded Part 4: In our final episode, the Capital Gazette is swept up in the troubles of the newspaper industry. Its corporate owners are making painful cuts, and a hedge fund with an ominous reputation seeks control. Staff members, who survived the 2018 shooting and kept the Capital going, wonder if the paper can last.

Capital Gazette: "We Are The Newsroom"

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Hey. I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED from NPR. If you haven't heard the first three episodes of our Capital Gazette series, you might want to go back. The series goes in order.

OK, so we're going to start this episode in 2020 - our old friend. It's about six months into the pandemic. The Capital Gazette staff, of course, is working remotely.


RICK HUTZELL: All right. Welcome, everybody. I'm have a little problem with my camera. So...

MCEVERS: The boss, Rick Hutzell, starts the weekly meeting.


HUTZELL: Says won't start the video, won't start the camera - don't know why. All right. We all know what I look like anyway.

MCEVERS: Rick told everybody they had to come to this meeting, which meant he was about to say something big.


HUTZELL: So the reason I made this mandatory is that at 1:00, I believe the note has come out that the company has decided to close a lot of its remote locations. Annapolis is on that list.


HUTZELL: That does not mean that they are closing the paper, let's be clear. So what this means is that we will close the newsroom at some date in the near future, and we will continue as an organization that uses this format as our newsroom.

MCEVERS: What Rick means is the newsroom of the Capital Gazette - the actual space where they went to work every day - will be closing for good. Selene San Felice, the reporter you've heard a lot in this series, gets up and walks away from the camera. Rachael Pacella covers her face with her hands.

And they get it. Revenue at newspapers has been way down, even before the pandemic. And the company is saying it doesn't make sense to pay for a space that no one is using right now. Turns out, Tribune Publishing, the newspaper chain that owns the Capital Gazette, actually closed four other newspaper offices that day, too.

But also, this is the Capital Gazette. Their old newsroom was attacked by a man who was coming for them. A year later, they got a new newsroom with those adjustable standing desks and 2 inches of Kevlar in the walls. A place where they might feel safe again. A place that became a symbol of how they came back from this terrible thing.


HUTZELL: You know, I know this is probably disappointing news for a lot of you. And when I first heard it, I got to admit, my stomach was on the floor as well. I've been working in newsrooms since I was 24 years old. It is my environment. I am a product of the newsroom.

MCEVERS: But maybe, Rick says, there could be a way this is all going to be OK.


HUTZELL: The things that make up a newsroom are not the walls, they're not the desks. It's the people. We are the newsroom.

MCEVERS: Rick, remember the last time you heard him, wasn't even sure if he should stay at the Capital. He's still here, and he's still the guy who has to try to hold it all together.


HUTZELL: I don't have - I think as I've made clear, I don't have all the answers. I can't even make my damn camera work. But I do believe that there is a workable solution that addresses a lot of these problems. That is my goal on this, and I have to ask you all to help me get there.


MCEVERS: Turns out, though, it wasn't just the newsroom closing. There would be a lot of big changes at the paper in 2020 - changes that made it hard for the staff to be as optimistic as Rick, changes that made some of them wonder if the paper would even make it. That's our show today after this break.


MCEVERS: OK, we are back. And before we talk more about the announcement that the newsroom is closing, we're going to go back a little to all the way before the pandemic, January 2020, when there was still a newsroom and Chris Benderev was there with them. He's going to take the story from here.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: Every Wednesday afternoon at the Capital Gazette, as you've heard before, Rick, the boss, would stroll out to this open space near the copier and hold the weekly stand-up meeting. He'd ticked through any agenda items, and then he'd always end things the same way - he'd hand it over for weekly awards.


HUTZELL: Let's go to weekly awards.

JOSH MCKERROW: OK. Thank you for the nominations, everybody.

BENDEREV: Weekly awards are a tradition that was started by Wendi Winters, who was killed in the shooting. And the way it works is everyone nominates someone for great work over the past week. The person with the most nominations gets a $5 gift card for coffee. But honestly, the most endearing part of this tradition is how every single nomination gets a shoutout.


MCKERROW: Brooks for steady coverage of the short-term rentals bill. Katherine for the North County story. Danielle for the law library scoop.

BENDEREV: Josh McKerrow, the photographer you've heard before, who worked out of the pickup truck on the day of the shooting...


MCKERROW: Olivia's (ph) follow-up on the canine story.

BENDEREV: ...He's who usually reads out the nominations. In his 40s, he's actually one of the more senior people at the paper.


MCKERROW: But the winner this week is Alex Mann for breaking the story about lawyers sealing documents without a judge's orders. It was a big, big story.



BENDEREV: Josh is actually the one who kept the tradition of the weekly awards going right after the shooting in 2018. They provided a kind of comforting consistency, and so did just getting up every day and telling himself he could go to the office.

MCKERROW: I can see Rick. I can see Rachael. I can bicker with Paul. I can do my work.

BENDEREV: Josh once told me that the newsroom was the only place in the world where he felt like people understood what he was going through because they were going through it, too. Plus, he loved his job. It didn't matter much that the pay wasn't great - $35,000 a year - or that he hadn't had a raise in six years. But then around the start of 2020, a couple things happened that forced Josh to totally rethink how long he could stay here.


BENDEREV: First, it was widely reported that Tribune Publishing, the big newspaper chain that owned the Capital Gazette, was likely to be bought by a Wall Street hedge fund called Alden Global Capital. Sure, Tribune had done a lot of buyouts, but it at least said journalism was part of its mission. Alden, on the other hand, was known for what many analysts called vulture capitalism. It had been buying up distressed newspaper chains across the U.S. and making deep cuts - massive layoffs were just one example - to squeeze more profit out of those papers.

The Washington Post reported that the founder of Alden has said that newspapers have to be cut to be saved. Alden, by the way, did not respond to our request for comment. Josh had been reading about Alden. They'd recently been called the Grim Reaper of American newspapers. And now he was terrified about what a takeover by Alden might mean for his job and the newspaper that he loved so much.

MCKERROW: There's overwhelming evidence that they're going to do the worst possible thing. They...

BENDEREV: I mean, they...

MCKERROW: They buy newspapers, and then they sell the newspaper property to their own company.

BENDEREV: You mean the office building. Right, right, right.

MCKERROW: Yeah, they sell the office building to another company that is owned by Alden. It's checkmate. There's no - they're not in it to put out newspapers; they're in it for the resources that are lying around.

BENDEREV: And the second thing that happened was Tribune Publishing announced a new round of buyouts, which presented Josh with a choice.


BENDEREV: On the one hand, if he took a buyout, he'd get seven months' continued pay and health insurance. He could start photographing weddings or corporate events, which paid better. On the other hand, remember, Josh was the guy who, even though he'd done it a million times before, was still excited about getting up at the crack of dawn so he could get the perfect lighting for his photos of Naval Academy freshmen waving goodbye to their moms and dads. Josh did not want to walk away from this job.

MCKERROW: I really, really don't want to. This is my life. This is my identity.

BENDEREV: So he set up a meeting over the phone with his bosses' bosses. It was a long shot, but maybe they could show him some tiny gesture that would give him an excuse to stay.

Is there a number you were asking this week?

MCKERROW: I was asking for anything.

BENDEREV: You didn't put a specific number to the request for a raise?

MCKERROW: No, no, I was just - you have to show me something.


MCKERROW: Yeah. I'm going to - taking extra vacation time, you know what I mean? I don't know what I would have said yes to. I'm desperate to be talked into staying.

BENDEREV: But the company said, no, there wasn't anything they could offer. That wasn't the only disappointing part of Josh's phone call with upper management, though. While they were talking, the manager compared Josh's job to another employee's job. The jobs were different, Josh says the manager explained, because that other employee was...

MCKERROW: Production critical. I don't even think he meant to say that. And so I think I said, how am I not production critical? And he kind of caught himself, but then, you know, basically said that if they don't have a photographer, they'll ask the reporters to go out and use cellphones and take pictures with cellphones.


MCKERROW: What I heard on the phone yesterday was - I'm humiliated. I feel like a fool. Like, what game did I think I was playing? What team did I think I was on?


BENDEREV: We asked Tribune about all this, by the way, but a spokesman said that they can't comment on employee matters. Of course, it's never easy to be told that you're replaceable. But for Josh, it was different. A year-and-a-half earlier, he could have died doing this job, and now the company was saying that that job could be accomplished by a print reporter with an iPhone.

MCKERROW: I mean, that's pretty much when I made my decision, like right then.

BENDEREV: Josh decided to take the buyout. He figured it'd be better than waiting for Alden to take over.

MCKERROW: Part of the reason I took the buyout was because I thought, look; if Alden comes in and gives you a layoff, it's just going to be, you know, put your stuff in this box and get out. And, you know, there won't be a chance for anybody to say, you know, nice things about you (laughter) or to say, hey, thank you for what you did. You know, maybe somebody'll make a speech, and maybe there'll be hugs and, you know, cake or something. That would be nice.


RACHAEL PACELLA: Today is Josh McKerrow's last day.

BENDEREV: The boss, Rick Hutzell, happened to be out on Josh's last day, so Rachael Pacella began things at Josh's sendoff.

PACELLA: So we got to go around and each say a nice thing about Josh. And there's ice cream.

BENDEREV: And then everyone gave their speeches.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Any time we went on an assignment together, you had a great eye for - oh, maybe go talk to that person or maybe go do that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: We did a story about a pony one time, and then because Josh is nice, he got pictures of me with the pony.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Y'all are like family, but he's been here as long as I've been at the paper. So, you know, we're going to miss you, brother.

MCKERROW: I'll miss you, too.

PACELLA: He's been caring and nurturing to the many young journalists who have moved through this office in the time he's been...

BENDEREV: When I looked around the room, a lot of those young journalists in their 20s, just starting out in local news, looked kind of devastated.


MCKERROW: It's no funeral. I'm not dying.


MCKERROW: I'm going to be in town.

BENDEREV: Before this goodbye party, a handful of the younger employees had told me that watching what had happened to Josh, with the no raise and the plan to replace him with cellphones after all that he'd done for the paper, it had made them worry for their own futures.

SELENE SAN FELICE: What's going to happen to me if he deserves it so much more than I do and he can't get anything?

BENDEREV: Selene San Felice, who was 24, says she knew this job was a huge part of Josh's identity.

SAN FELICE: So it feels like if Josh is leaving, that's when things are really bad, like we're crumbling.

BENDEREV: It was also bigger than Josh, though. Two other seasoned journalists were also taking this buyout, including Pat Furgurson, the guy whose pickup truck had become iconic on the day of the shooting when the staff worked out of it. Plus, this buyout had come just 15 months after another round of buyouts. When Tribune took over the Capital six years earlier, there had been about 14 reporters in the newsroom. Now, it was down to roughly half that.

SAN FELICE: And it feels like everyone who's staying is, like, going down with the ship.



BENDEREV: Back at the goodbye party, reporter Danielle Ohl stood up to make her speech.


OHL: I've already cried so much today. I'm trying not to.

BENDEREV: Here's why she was upset. Danielle is the chair of the union that the Capital Gazette is part of, and she spent months trying to get raises for people, including Josh. But it hadn't worked. And now there'd just be one photographer left at the paper.


OHL: I know Paul's going to carry us through, but he shouldn't have to. And I'm sorry I couldn't do more, Josh (crying).

MCKERROW: Oh, no, no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: You didn't do anything.

MCKERROW: You did everything.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: This is the company's fault. And this is...

OHL: I know, but I tried...

MCKERROW: No, you did try. It's a hurricane. You can't do anything against a hurricane.

OHL: I know.

BENDEREV: Josh made his way around this long block of desks to get to Danielle.



OHL: Yeah, I know.

MCKERROW: You can't stand against history.

OHL: (Laughter) I know.

MCKERROW: It just - I mean, you can; it just takes a long time to win.

OHL: Yeah.


BENDEREV: After the goodbye party, I wanted to check in with Danielle. I'd seen how hard she'd taken Josh's buyout. And she told me that this whole thing, it had gotten her thinking, and now she was consumed by this one thought.

OHL: The thing that makes me just so angry is that we could bounce back from a mass shooting, but I do not know if we can bounce back and survive corporate ownership.


BENDEREV: When Rick was back in the office, he said that Josh and Pat would be missed. There'd be a happy hour. But at a staff meeting, he also told everyone that, yes, they would need to start taking more photos with their phones.


HUTZELL: So Jeff is going to put together a brown-bag seminar on how to take better pictures with your cellphones.

BENDEREV: But then on a more positive note, Rick reminded them of the important work that they were still doing. In the past week alone, they'd covered important stories out of the Naval Academy, City Hall and the Statehouse.


HUTZELL: I got an email from someone asking - with the departure of two people who've been here for a long time, he asked if he could write a column for us about the death of local journalism. It was 8 o'clock, and I was testy, so I said, read the damn newspaper; we're far from dead. So we are doing excellent work. We should be proud of it. And that's it for me. Thank you.


BENDEREV: Rick was doing his best to tell them that the Capital is not a sinking ship.


BENDEREV: Then the pandemic hit. And six months later, in August, Rick was in that Zoom call, telling everybody that Tribune Publishing was going to permanently close their newsroom, which brings us back to where we started this episode.


HUTZELL: When I first heard it, I got to admit, my stomach was on the floor as well.

BENDEREV: Rick assured them that their parent paper, The Baltimore Sun, would make room for them at its offices after the pandemic. But Rick's reporters had questions, like how was a desk 45 minutes away in Baltimore going to help them cover Annapolis?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: I would not feel comfortable filing from my car after a town hall at a high school, you know, like, in a parking lot alone. So I think that...

HUTZELL: Agreed. Agreed. I do think we have to find a solution...

BENDEREV: The reporters were upset and confused. And later, after the Zoom call, they decided that they needed to do something.


MCEVERS: That's coming up after this break.


MCEVERS: OK. We are back. And at this point, it is August 2020. And here's Chris Benderev again.

BENDEREV: During that Zoom call when Rick announced that the newsroom would be closing permanently, Selene had to walk away from her laptop. She began hyperventilating. Now she felt sure that the paper was going to go under, especially since rumors were still circulating that Alden was going to buy Tribune and make things even worse.

Selene spent the next few days wondering what she could do. One option she began thinking about was something that gets tossed around a lot these days - try to get a wealthy private investor who loves journalism to buy your newspaper, like how the richest man in the world had bought The Washington Post.

SAN FELICE: Like, there are people with, like, shitloads of money that they could throw around. But if I allow myself to really sit in that fantasy of - like, my mom is constantly talking about Jeff Bezos. Like, call Jeff Bezos. Like, you call Jeff Bezos. I don't think anybody can call Jeff Bezos.

BENDEREV: Then Selene and some of the other reporters had another idea, one that didn't require begging rich people. They'd do something that would show Tribune that at least they weren't going to go down without a fight. They organized a rally.

SAN FELICE: Over by the mic? This mic right here and this mic right here - OK.

BENDEREV: I started working on this podcast series in 2018 because I saw Selene speak her mind publicly on CNN, Anderson Cooper, hours after surviving the shooting. She said how the world would soon forget her, like it forgets about all mass shootings. Now, two years later, in front of a crowd at Annapolis' main city dock, looking into some TV cameras, she was speaking out again. But this time, instead of talking about an attack on her newsroom, she was talking about a company's decision to close it down.

SAN FELICE: I think when we think about grief, we think of it as linear, right? So something really bad happened. You watch people die while you hid under a desk, and then you're supposed to get better. It's been two years, right? So you can just take that desk away from me. That's kind of how this feels. That's kind of how - it feels...

BENDEREV: This rally wasn't just a rally. It was also a sort of reunion for the Capital Gazette. Phil Davis, who'd survived the shooting, had taken a new job, but here he was.

PHIL DAVIS: How is it that a year after you give these people somewhere secure to work, you say, that's long enough; we need our money?

BENDEREV: Six months after their buyouts, Josh and Pat were in the crowd, too, along with other former employees, but also a lot of people from around Annapolis. One had a sign that read, save local news, another, shame on Tribune.

OHL: We just need the company to know that it's not just a few disgruntled reporters who are mad about not having a room.

BENDEREV: Here's Danielle Ohl again, the chair of their union.

OHL: It's a whole community that's mad about not having a watchdog because when your local newspaper goes away, fewer people vote, your taxes go up, your government gets away with things.

BENDEREV: Then she stopped and looked over her shoulder at the mayor of Annapolis, who was here, too.

OHL: Just because Gavin's back there doesn't mean I'm going to let him get away with anything...


OHL: ...Which he knows. It is worse for the community. We're not just here because we care about ourselves. We're here because we care about you. This is a calling. It doesn't pay well. You get confronted. You get mean messages. And it doesn't matter because it's too important to keep going and to keep reporting. We cover everything. We won't be able to too much longer if it keeps going on like this. Not only do we not have a place to be, we have fewer people to be there. And we need you to know about it.


BENDEREV: After the rally, a Tribune spokesperson said that the company was, quote, "sensitive to how challenging the decision to close the Capital's office is for our Annapolis-based employees, especially in the wake of the tragedy two years ago."

In any case, over the next couple weeks, each employee came by one at a time to empty their desks permanently from the Capital Gazette's offices. I talked to Selene on her move-out day. She said the worst part for her was when she walked into the conference room.

SAN FELICE: That's where those five portraits of them hang.

BENDEREV: After the shooting, a local artist had made pencil-drawn portraits of Gerald and Rebecca and John and Wendi and Rob.

SAN FELICE: And I just don't know what's going to happen to them. I mean, what am I going to, take Rob home, take Wendi home? And - like, I can't take all five of them. I can't take just one of them. Like, people sent so many portraits and paintings and all this stuff we could hang on a wall, and now there's no wall to hang it on. Like, having a place to put that meant something, and nobody thought about where we would put it before they just sent an email saying, your office is gone.


BENDEREV: Selene said that the move-out felt like the hangover from the rally. No one was going to rescue them.


BENDEREV: As the year wore on, staff told me that morale continued to decline. A few people left for other jobs in the fall and winter, and it seemed like those positions weren't going to be filled. The ship, they said, felt like it was sinking deeper and deeper. And then in February 2021, the hedge fund that had been called the Grim Reaper of American newspapers finally made its move.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tribune Publishing, which owns nine major daily metro newspapers, announced that it was turning over complete control to Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund widely seen as gutting editorial coverage at newspapers. Only one of the...

BENDEREV: But in that same announcement, there was another really surprising piece of news about Tribune, one that affected the Capital Gazette.

So wait - what just happened?

OHL: (Laughter) I mean, yeah, we got what we wanted, which is a really rare thing. I don't think I actually ever thought that it would happen.

BENDEREV: A Maryland businessman who runs a big hotel chain had formed a nonprofit, which was planning to buy The Baltimore Sun and all its subsidiaries, which included The Capital. For the staff, it was good news. Not perfect news - rich people don't always save the newspapers that they buy. But they said it was better than being under Alden. With a nonprofit owner, they told me, they wouldn't have to worry if shareholders were more important than the actual journalism.


BENDEREV: The next day at the weekly virtual stand-up meeting, Rick, who had spent the past 12 months trying to buck up his staff when the news seemed grim, tried to keep them from getting too giddy.

HUTZELL: I want to point out that there are several steps before this comes to fruition.

BENDEREV: But he did finally admit...

HUTZELL: I think this is a better path forward for us. I do. And I certainly hope it comes to fruition. And I think everybody here does, too.

BENDEREV: And then when the meeting was done, weekly awards.

HUTZELL: All right, anybody else? Without that, we'll go to the weekly award winner. I don't think I sent out the card for the weekly award winner for last week because I couldn't remember who it was...


BENDEREV: Before we go, an update about a few people. First, Josh McKerrow, the photographer who took the buyout, a lot of the gigs that he'd lined up got cancelled because of the pandemic, but he still tries to keep his photography skills sharp. He wakes up every morning - and I do mean every morning - to take pictures of birds and nature at dawn. He calls it today's life. And you can check it out on his Twitter - @joshuamckerrow. In early 2021, Selene San Felice made the difficult decision to leave the Capital Gazette. She moved to Tampa Bay for a new job, which is also where she got her start as a student journalist. She now writes a local newsletter for the news site Axios. She says she likes the new work, the better pay and the weather. Rachael Pacella and Danielle Ohl are both still reporting for The Capital. Rachael covers education. Danielle reports on the pandemic. She also published a big investigative story on evictions in collaboration with ProPublica. Chase Cook's still around, too. He got a promotion to editor. And Rick Hutzell is still running the paper, which includes handling coverage of the ongoing case of the shooter. You may remember he pleaded guilty, but there was still the second phase of his trial for his insanity plea. It was postponed and is now scheduled for this summer. Rick will be part of a team editing articles about the trial. He told me, quote, "I got to finish the story."


BENDEREV: OK. I also need to tell you about some people who you mostly haven't heard in this series but who were crucial to the process of making it - Capital reporter Olivia Sanchez for never being or at least seeming annoyed by all my many, many questions; Brandi Bottalico, who also edited stories about the shooter's trial and let me record her a lot; Karen Denny, the journalism professor who loaned out a college newsroom to the Capital after the shooting and told me what that time was like; also Chara Hutzell, Naomi Harris, Pat Ferguson, Pam Wood, Lon Sheetz, Erin Cox, Erica Green, Brooks DuBose, Talia Richman, Ulysses Munoz, Sandy Phillips, Penny Abernathy, Lauren Lumpkin, Jan Winburn, Erin Ailworth, John Sutter, Marty Padden, Tom Marquardt, Steve Gunn and everyone else at The Capital for putting up with me, including The Capital security guards for politely buzzing me in more times than I can possibly count, plus everyone who told me about the late Bob Hough. Thank you all very, very much.


MCEVERS: This episode was reported by Chris Benderev, produced by Rhaina Cohen and edited by Alison MacAdam. Special thanks to Lisa Pollack. Thanks also to Emily Bogle, Karen Duffin, David Folkenflik, Eric Mennel, Kia Miakka Natisse, Matt Ozug, Alyssa Pollard, Jenny Schmidt, Yowei Shaw, Chris Turpin, Nicole Werbeck, Justine Yan and Wanyu Zhang. Photography for our digital story was by Claire Harbage. You really should go look at her pictures at Our intern is Carolyn McCusker. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom. Our lawyer is Kimberly Chow Sullivan, fact-checking by Susie Cummings and Mary Glendinning, engineering by Isaac Rodrigues, music by Ramtin Arablouei and Blue Dot Sessions. Our senior supervising producer is Nicole Beemsterboer. Our bosses are Nancy Barnes, Neal Carruth and Anya Grundmann. If you want to reach out, we are on Twitter - @nprembedded. That's it for our series about the Capital Gazette. But we will be back soon with more. Thanks.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.